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County challenged to find affordable housing sites

Uncertainty was the primary mood at a workshop to discuss draft revisions to the Housing Element of the county General Plan in Eureka on Tuesday evening, March 23.

Approximately two dozen people representing several interest groups including the Humboldt Association of Realtors, the North Coast Homebuilders Association, Housing for All, Healthy Humboldt, the HELP group, some developers, and a smattering of concerned citizens attended the workshop.

Last November the county received a letter from Cathy Creswell, deputy director of HCD’s Division of Housing Policy Development, citing a number of deficiencies in the 2007-2014 Housing Element adopted by the Board of Supervisors and submitted to HCD in August, 2009.

The Housing Element, an “element” or chapter of the General Plan, must be rewritten and approved by HCD every five to seven years, regardless of the status of the rest of the General Plan.

Failure to adopt the Housing Element in a timely way can make the county ineligble for certain funding programs needed to meet the county’s affordable housing needs as required by the HCD, resulting in a downward spiral.

Humboldt County submitted its Housing Element in time for the August 31, 2009 deadline, but Creswell’s letter pointed out several changes needed for compliance with state law.

While the county does not have a specific deadline to meet for the revisions, staff is struggling to bring the Housing Element to the Board of Supervisors before the start of the next round of state funding. To make that target date, the supervisors need to approve the revised element no later than May 31.

Many of the required changes would seem to be “minor” as defined by HCD; that is, the changes are required to respond to HCD’s comments; they do not substantially affect the objectives, policies, or programs in the draft element, and they are “reasonably based on credible information that is readily accessible to the public.”

Most of the requested changes are for more information, including charts and narratives giving specific details to flesh out the summaries of information in the existing draft. County staff, led by senior planner Michael Richardson, has extensively rewritten the element to include this information.

But what seemed like a slam-dunk quickly turned into an extensive discussion on Thursday evening, with parties left disagreeing on such basic issues as whether HCD wants the county’s figures based on current conditions or on the numbers it hopes to achieve when the Housing Element is implemented.

County staff interprets HCD’s directive as requiring information based on current conditions.

Among the topics that caused the most uncertainty was the effect of development standards such as standards for parking and solar shading on affordable housing.

Relaxation of such standards had been considered as incentives for developers building housing affordable to persons and families in “below moderate” income categories, but the Planning Commission had refused to relax some of these standards in its advisory vote on the element last summer.

”Unless restraints on solar shading are relaxed we can’t make the [required affordable housing] numbers,” said Julie Williams, representing the North Coast Association of Homebuilders.

Later in the meeting Williams stated that she believes all development projects should have the same relaxed standards as those adopted for affordable housing, whatever standards are finally adopted.

The participants seemed united on taking the potential list of incentives back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration of items such as solar shading that the commission had previously crossed out.

Another major issue was how the county can meet its affordable housing needs by infill in areas already served by water and sewer when many community services districts lack the funding for infrastructure improvements to provide capacity for new housing.

Tina Christiansen of the Humboldt Association of Realtors asserted that a shortage of flat land where adequate sewer capacity exists will make it impossible to develop either low-income or moderate-income multifamilty rental units. The county already has a critical shortage of such units, she said.

Much of the remaining flat land in the county is outside urban service areas and is currently zoned for agriculture. A clear conflict exists between two major goals of the General Plan Update: to provide adequate housing for all income categories and to keep agricultural resources available for food production.

One idea proposed by staff is to rezone appropriate parcels that are now zoned for single-family units. Several large parcels meeting the criteria are scattered in urban services areas throughout the county.

On the other hand, not all landowners would be willing to agree to such a rezone. “We’ve got to get to our allocation level,” Richardson explained. “We will look at voluntary rezones first.”

But, he added, if not enough landowners with appropriate sites agree to rezone, the county may have to go ahead with non-voluntary rezones to meet the state’s requirements.

Individual notices will be sent out to landowners with property under consideration for rezone, Richardson said. Landowners will then have 45 days to respond to the proposal.

Several other questions, including how to prioritize the county’s limited funding opportunities for housing in the “extremely low income” category, were considered by the group.

The meeting deadline of 8:30 arrived before reaching what is probably the most controversial part of the Housing Element, the land use inventory, a list of all vacant or “underdeveloped” parcels in the county with estimates of how much additional development they could provide. The group agreed to meet the following night to review it.

Results will be brought before the Planning Commission for its consideration, comment, and perhaps an advisory vote at the commission’s next meeting on Thursday, April 1.

If the commission can provide a definitie direction for the Board of Supervisors, the Supervisors will deliberate and possibly make a final decision at its Tuesday, April 6 meeting.

Most likely further revision will be requested, but direction from the commission or the supervisors in early April will give staff time to prepare another version of the element for approval by the board before the end of May.

The revised Housing Element can be seen and downloaded at www.planupdate.org by clicking on the words “Housing Element” in green on the home page and then selecting one of the three versions of the element from the table of contents.

Comments and questions should be addressed to Michael Richardson at mrichardson@co.humboldt.ca.us.

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